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Cuba and US inch closer

The two countries agree to talk about immigration policy. It is the second significant overture Obama has made to Cuba in two months.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 31, 2009



The United States' offer to open a dialogue with Cuba on immigration is a further example of the Obama administration's high-wire act regarding the Communist nation.

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Cuba accepted the offer Sunday, potentially reopening talks between the two countries that have been suspended by President Bush in 2003.

The timing of the announcement suggests that it is aimed at winning points with America's neighbors. The Organization of American States is meeting this week in Honduras, and many members are pushing to re-admit Cuba, which was expelled in 1962 – something the US has so far opposed. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will attend the OAS meeting, can point to the dialogue as a marker of progress.

This is a script the Obama administration has used before. Cuba was also expected to dominate the Summit of the Americas in April. But a week before the meeting, the Obama administration announced an easing of travel restrictions to Cuba for Cuban-American families. That, combined with Obama's humility at the summit, resulted in an unexpected level of cooperation.

For now, it appears that the talks have a limited purpose. They would merely reinstate discussions that had already been taking place before 2003.

One major feature of those talks had been a desire to preempt Cubans from trying to sail to the US in dangerous, makeshift boats.

A State department spokeswoman told CNN that the new dialogue would renew both nations' "commitment to safe, legal, and orderly migration."

But Cuba also said it would be willing to discuss issues beyond immigration with the US, such as hurricane preparedness, counterterrorism, and a resumption of mail service. Cuba was responding Sunday to proposals that Obama administration sent to Havana on May 22. The shape the resulting dialogue takes will offer clues as to whether the agreement simply marks a return to the status quo pre-2003 or whether it encompasses a more significant advance in US-Cuba relations.

The Obama administration is facing mounting pressure from both sides of the issue. In another move that could placate many members of the OAS, the US suggested last week that it would be open to re-admitting Cuba to the OAS if Cuba adopted democratic principles – an offer that provided "hints of the growing willingness for a dialogue with Havana," according to Reuters.

Yet prominent Cuban-American members of Congress have promised to punish the OAS if it welcomes Cuba back into the fold. If this happens, Rep. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey has threatened to block US contributions to the OAS, which account for about 60 percent of the OAS budget, according to the Washington Post.

The wide gap between the two sides of the debate – and the depth of emotion involved – points to why the Obama administration is adopting a "go slowly" approach.

No dates for the talks have been set.

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